Inheriting Low Self-Esteem

Inheriting Low Self-Esteem


What if your self-hatred is not actually yours?

Self-hatred seems so personal.

What could be more about us, what could be more ours, than our opinions of ourselves?

Those things we think and say to and about ourselves as we gaze into mirrors, talk, walk, work, take chances or take tests: those usually sharp-as-acid nasty things that instantly make us feel worse, because we of all people know our weakest, tenderest, most vulnerable spots and we of all people know how to hurt us most.

Those things we think and say to and about ourselves which we would almost surely never think or say to or about anyone else on earth, because no way are are we that cruel: those brutalities we save only for ourselves: What could be a more perfect, perpetual closed circuit: to us from us to us? What could be more intimate?

And thus, we ask ourselves, defending those closed circuits, what could be more based on truth? Surely, we tell ourselves, we of all people know precisely what about us merits hate, so surely we must spend our lives expressing it?

But what if your self-hatred is not actually yours?

What if you "got" self-hatred from your parents just as you inherited their hair type, high cholesterol or short temper?

Studies show that genetically hereditary factors in our species go beyond the calculably physical and include behavioral tendencies: moods, habits, interests, world views, tastes.

Identical twins raised apart, as strangers, have been found to share very distinct personal traits: passions for white-chocolate pretzels, say, or complex practical jokes.

That is the "nature" factor. Add the "nurture" factor, and consider: Were you born to, and then raised by, someone with low self-esteem?

I was.

Babies are behavioral sponges: round-the-clock learning-machines whose large, complex and busy brains scan their surroundings constantly for clues on how to live.

Much of this learning manifests as mimicry. It's cute when playing peekaboo, less so when Baby raptly watches Daddy furiously smash the lamp he's failed to fix, or Mommy punch herself in the gut while wailing I'm fat.

I've written here before about how grownups can help their children not hate themselves. But what if you were a child whose parents never thought of taking such precautions, never calculated the potential damage of your imitating what you saw them do?

Authentic as it might feel, self-hatred is often only learned-long-ago mimicry of those we loved and trusted most. Our first seemingly fully functional examples of humanity, our parents were our pack leaders, our deities.

We were such adept, innocent copycats that we copied our self-hating parents not by copying their hatred of themselves — that is, not by hating them — but by aping self-hatred itself.

By concluding, as I did then: So this is how ladies behave: by punching themselves in the gut.

We played the world's most tragic, longest-lasting game of peekaboo.

But this idea of inheritance can help us help ourselves.

Considering that our self-hatred is not technically, originally, ours dilutes its power. Reimagining it as not a true set of our honest opinions but a learned behavior, like a memorized poem or a parlor trick — or an unwanted gift, such as a box of Betamax cassettes — makes it less personal.

This lets us ponder our self-hatred from a distance. Instead of inhabiting it, we can in these moments inspect it with gentle curiosity.

Can you remember your parents or other caregivers displaying self-hatred? What did they do and say?

The idea that my self-hatred is inherited doesn't automatically dissolve it. Years of damage have been done. But I compare this realization to discovering that one mistakenly exchanged prescription eyeglasses with a stranger beside a swimming pool twelve years ago. Informed of the mistake, one would sigh: At least THAT explains why I can't see.

Let's make a ritual of this. Let's discard other unwanted "inheritances" — legacies, gifts, hand-me-downs bestowed on us in earnest, jest or spite, on purpose or by accident: that croquet set, those platform boots. The rooibos we never brewed.

Donate. Disperse. Destroy. As each item departs, let us imagine ourselves shedding. Cleansing. Dispossessing. Maybe we can also start that process in our hearts and minds.

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